In my work as a consultant I have discovered that members of a congregation often are afraid to express their true thoughts and feelings at times and in places where truth is most needed. This lack of truth-telling can be a missed opportunity for dramatic congregational growth and healing.
There also are countless examples in my work of situations in which the truth was told, revealing how truth can make a profound difference in the life of a congregation. For example, I recently led a retreat for the leadership of an Episcopal cathedral that is undergoing some dramatic changes: a capital campaign that will expand its presence in the downtown area of a major city, expanded efforts to include Spanish-speaking people and young adults within the life of the congregation, and outreach initiatives to serve the homeless and others who survive on the margins of a city that is otherwise experiencing a renaissance. It was clear that this congregation was engaged in a transformational effort and that there was excitement, commitment, and inspired imagination in the room.
Toward the end of the retreat, action-planning teams presented their plans for moving the congregation through the challenges ahead. They outlined the specific changes required to move forward. The action plans from each group were posted on a large wall, and I asked the participants to stand back and look at the “big picture” before us and to consider the composite impact of these various changes. Participants immediately spoke of their excitement and of their enthusiasm. Indeed, this was an exciting and defining moment in the history of this congregation—one in which the past, present, and future were coming together in a dynamic and impressive manner. But a silence then ensued, broken by the voice of a woman who asked, “Larry, am I the only one feeling fear?” Suddenly there was a chorus of “No’s” that erupted from various places in the room, and other participants nonverbally indicated some resonance with the woman’s feelings. This one woman’s courage to express her true feelings had opened the door for others to do so as well.
In another meeting with multiple staff of a large congregation, I reviewed with the group a behavioral covenant it had developed three months before as a response to tensions among the staff. During this review, someone on the staff suggested changing a phrase in the covenant. Others readily agreed with that change. Before moving on, I asked, “Is everyone comfortable with that change?” I heard “yes” from all of the staff, but only a murmur from the senior pastor.
Since I make it a rule that anything other than a clear “yes” is a “no,” I pursued the matter with the pastor. At first he was hesitant to go against the apparent consensus of the group, but gradually he shared his discomfort about making any change to the covenant that seemed to weaken the staff’s commitment. As we pursued the conversation, I discovered that he not only needed some reassurance that his staff was not backtracking on their promise to do some things differently, but that he also needed to talk about the hurt that he had carried as a target of much of the tension that had existed among the staff. The result was that his own humanity became more transparent to his staff, who had previously seen him only in his role as “senior minister.”
In a third situation, some members of a church board were resistant to borrowing money for a new educational wing. Although the majority had voted in favor of a plan to do just that, there still was a reluctance to move forward on it. As I probed further, one woman eventually was able to express that her parents had raised her to “never borrow beyond your means.” Even though she had voted for the expenditure, she faced an inner struggle about this decision. Once she was encouraged to express her reservations, others (interestingly enough, of her same generation) expressed similar misgivings. This then became a “visible” factor for us to discuss and resolve.
In each of these scenarios the conversation could have ended prematurely. In all three cases, however, someone risked disclosing his or her inner thoughts and conflicts, creating an authentic moment that otherwise would have been a missed opportunity for engaging the differences and developing a more comprehensive understanding.
In congregations, the authentic moment—the expressing of a thing that could significantly transform the discussion—is too often missed. When thoughts and feelings go unexpressed at moments when they could make a crucial difference in the life of a staff, board, or another congregational setting, the crucial turning point in the conversation never happens.
In addition to the conversation that is occurring, there is often another internal unexpressed conversation that, though unexpressed, still impacts the life of a congregation in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. We will never know the cost, over time, of withholding vital information and experience that could otherwise lead to a deeper understanding and engagement with each other.
What is required in order for the authentic moment to be evoked within a congregational setting is “soul listening,” which Jean Stairs describes in her book Listening for the Soul:
As we live our ordinary routines, experiencing moments of difficulty, surprise, and play we can develop in ourselves and in others the habit of listening for the soul…It is about letting our ears be awake and attentive to the voices of yearning, weariness and supplication in the form of words, holy screams for new life, or sighs too deep for words.1
As a consultant with congregations, I often have to push through the pattern of false consensus, the practice of pretending to agree in order to avoid conflict. False consensus can be so much of a habit that it goes unrecognized. It thrives on appearance rather than authenticity.
The practice of soul listening, on the other hand, requires a willingness to slow the rush toward consensus or a premature plan of action. This often means staying with an uncomfortable silence in which more truth can surface and influence the decision-making.
The important point is to allow what was previously unexpressed to inform rather than to immobilize action. In the case of the woman who expressed her fear among the group of leaders at the vestry retreat, my follow-up questions aimed to help the group consider how fear also may be present in the congregation. In listening to that fear I encouraged the leadership to consider how they could incorporate it in the way they paced, communicated, and presented their dramatic plans to the congregation as a whole. We consequently thought through ways to move forward in which fear was a natural companion to their excitement for this new mission—and not an immobilizing barrier.
Even though the Christian scriptures tell us “the truth shall make you free,” the prevalent belief in many congregations is that “the truth shall make you…odd!” How often is truth avoided rather than allowed? How often is the fear of telling the truth stronger than the desire to tell it? When members of a congregation or their leadership avoid truth rather than embrace it, the result is that no one is freed.
For example, despite the best of intentions, congregations often don’t follow through on their agreements to do an annual or biannual mutual ministry reviews of their clergy and congregational leadership. When reviews are conducted only when they are considered “absolutely necessary” or when conflict brews, the stakes are so high at that point that what could have been a routine process of review can be too loaded—and less helpful. By putting off telling the truth, congregations delay the resolution of workable is
sues or prevent such resolution altogether.
The path to authenticity often requires reexamining some of our underlying assumptions about truth-telling and some of our practices for dealing with differences within congregational life.
Assumptions about Truth
There are some prevalent assumptions about truth-telling that can undermine the capacity of congregations to reflect upon their actual experiences and to make constructive choices.
Will Schutz2 examined some of the impact that not telling the truth has on organizations. A classic and tragic example of this was the disaster of the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion soon after takeoff. An investigation following this tragedy revealed that even though some of those working on the design of the Challenger had concerns about whether some of its parts would be able to withstand temperature changes, they did not raise objections. To do so—to tell the truth—would have meant contradicting the opinions of their coworkers or managers.
Most often we do not experience such tragic consequences for not telling the truth. Nevertheless, when truth is avoided, a gradual erosion of morale, energy, and innovation can occur in congregations. In congregational life, faith can mean trusting that the congregation can withstand the truth—even when it requires hearing difficult things, embracing fear, or managing what Gil Rendle calls “the roller coaster of change.”
A common assumption is that telling the truth means “telling someone off” or telling other people what’s wrong with them. Another assumption is that if we tell the truth we might hurt someone. In fact, as Schutz points out, in many instances we are not really trying to protect the other person; we are protecting ourselves from the consequences of telling the truth.
Telling the truth may be just as much telling the truth about ourselves—about our own experience—as it may be about telling the truth about another. I have often encouraged members of a congregation or a multiple staff to engage in truth-telling that includes the truth about themselves—not just about another—by guiding them to complete sentences such as these:
“When you do x behavior, I interpret that to mean that you are. . . and this makes me feel. . .”
“My contribution to the tension is. . .”
“What I would like to see happen is. . . and so I would like to request. . .”
Schutz3 asserts that lower levels of truth include withholding (e.g., silence) or name-calling. An example of this might be addressing a colleague who is always late for a meeting by saying, “You’re late and you are so irresponsible.” Higher levels of truth-telling include expressing how the other’s behavior impacts oneself—and expressing one’s own contribution to the tension. An example of this would be, “When you are consistently late for our staff meetings, I feel annoyed, yet I haven’t brought this up because I feel disrespected and I wonder if the real reason for your lateness is that you don’t value our time together.”
In congregations, once the dynamic of blaming or name-calling is interrupted, a broader ownership and responsibility for change often can begin.
Getting through the agenda of a board meeting often can become more important than hearing different perspectives and integrating those differences into a constructive response. When “getting through the agenda” becomes the priority, the conversations that should take place in the meeting often take place elsewhere.
Yvonne Agazarian4, in her work on systems-centered therapy, says there are several inappropriate ways in which people tend to respond when differences occur: by rejecting or not taking the other person’s view seriously, by accepting the other person’s view by acknowledging it—but at arm’s length, or by joining or supporting the other person’s view with personal passion or involvement.
Differences within congregations can be most transformative when the differences can be allowed without excluding those who disagree. When someone goes out on a limb to state a differing opinion or experience at a board meeting, a common tendency is to see the opinion as aberrant even when it isn’t. A skilled facilitator will often ask, “Does anyone else have a similar feeling or thought?” It is often the case that someone else does. Then, as a board begins to grapple with different opinions, creative solutions can arise from what otherwise would have been sidestepped—for the sake of “getting through” the agenda.
“Divided No More”
Parker Palmer has pointed out that many of our organizations, including religious organizations, may prompt us to live “divided lives”:
Inwardly we feel one sort of imperative for our lives, but outwardly we respond to quite another. This is the human condition, of course; our inner and outer worlds will never be in perfect harmony. But there are extremes of dividedness that become intolerable, and when the tension snaps inside of this person, then that person, and then another, a movement may be underway.5
The example that Palmer points out is Rosa Parks’ decision on a particular day in Alabama in 1955 that she would sit at the front of the bus. Her decision to be “divided no more” provided a spark to a movement for civil rights. As Palmer points out:
The decision to stop leading a divided life is less a strategy for altering other people’s values than an uprising of the elemental need for one’s own values to come to the fore. The power of a movement lies less in attacking some enemy’s untruth than in naming and claiming a truth of one’s own.6
Likewise in congregations, the more we, as lay or professional religious leaders, can practice telling our own truth and encouraging others to do the same, the more we can create a climate in our congregations of truth-telling that can truly liberate, that can truly “set us free.”
1. Jean Stairs, Listening for the Soul: Pastoral Care and Spiritual Direction (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 15.
2. Will Schutz, The Truth Option (Berkeley: Berkeley Press, 1984) and The Human Element.
3. Will Schutz, The Human Element, 60–61.
4. Yvonne Agazarian, Systems-Centered Therapy for Groups. (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997), 56–59.
5. Parker Palmer, “Divided No More: A Movement Approach to Educational Reform,” Change (Mar/Apr 1992): 11.